October 23, 2008

Red’s Wildcat Offense Gets Results

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Sputtering offenses across the nation have been resuscitated recently thanks to gridiron’s newest flavor of the month — the wildcat offense. Cornell is no exception to this popular trend in which someone other than the traditional quarterback takes the snap from center. The Red, however, utilized the wildcat offense long before it received its catchy new nickname. Staying within the animal kingdom, Cornell refers to the exotic formation as the possum package.
“We try to use terms from Louisiana … possum, catfish,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. The Pelican State is the home of junior wide receiver Stephen Liuzza, the featured player taking the direct snap in the Red’s possum package. The former quarterback has made over two dozen guest appearances behind center for Cornell this season.
[img_assist|nid=32905|title=Switching it up|desc=Head coach Jim Knowles’ new wildcat offense, built on the versatility of junior Stephen Liuzza, has had success this year.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“He’s effective,” Knowles said. “He makes yardage. There’s no other way to put it. He can make people miss and create something out of nothing. That’s the kind of guy you want with the ball in his hands. We have not been able to get him the ball from the wide receiver position, so that’s why I think you’ll see him more and more at the quarterback spot.”
Liuzza’s versatility adds another dimension to the Red’s offensive attack. Last year, he replaced injured regular quarterback Nathan Ford in Cornell’s visit to Dartmouth and masterminded 423 yards of offense off of passes, rushes and receptions — the third-highest total offense performance in the Red’s history.
In key series this year, Cornell has relied on Liuzza to provide his special brand of Louisiana Lightning to spark momentum. Earlier in the season, Liuzza entered on the second series of the game against Yale and surprised the Bulldogs by tossing a 22-yard pass to fellow junior Bryan Walters.
“That’s how we always want to come out even to start the game or in the second half,” Liuzza said. “We want to try to get a few first downs and a few positive plays. If we know we can get a few positive yards, then we’ll probably use it and that will hopefully get us going for the half.”
The southern sparkplug often strikes big against unsuspecting defenses with a team-high 5.9 yards per carry. Although Liuzza has passed the pigskin for 56 yards in 2008, he predominantly is used as a running weapon in the possum package.
“We actually just try to take what the defense is going to give us,” Liuzza said. “If they continue to not put a lot of people in the box, then we’ll just keep running the ball. As with everything we run, it’s going to be based on what the defense gives us and then we’re going to adjust to what they do.”
“It’s a real balance,” Knowles said. “Everything else that we do is good, too, but you have to keep advancing that. You want to keep sprinkling Stephen in more and more, but not enough so much that people can really get a beat on him and it becomes ineffective.”
Liuzza has not been the sole Cornell player to direct the offense in lieu of senior signal caller Nathan Ford. The Red has also inserted a tandem tailback combination of senior Luke Siwula and junior Randy Barbour to take a direct snap on multiple occasions throughout the campaign.
Similar to Liuzza, the two running backs have generated momentum for a sometimes stagnant Cornell offense. Much of their change of pace was established on the ground, but Siwula completed the first passing touchdown of his career in last Saturday’s contest against Colgate. Siwula connected with senior tight end Zach Vredenburgh on first-and-goal from the three-yard line to register Cornell’s first points of the game in the second quarter.
“We’ve been practicing that for a while just waiting for a situation like the one that came up,” Vredenburgh said. “We thought it would be there and it was. [Siwula’s pass] was unusual, but it worked great. He drew a great fake to bring everyone up in the box.”
Though the novelty of the wildcat offense has worn off on the professional level, there have been no answers to date to Coache Knowles’ vaunted possum package.